IT departments are familiar with service-level agreements (SLAs) that set parameters around important objectives like service desk performance and support services efficiency.

But have you heard of experience-level agreements (XLAs)? Maybe not, because Gartner analysts find them to be a relatively new type of agreement IT departments bake into their contracts with managed services companies or third-party IT sources.

While XLAs are often defined differently, ultimately they measure employee experience with IT services and technology. Unlike SLAs which measure raw IT productivity and efficiency metrics, XLAs incorporate employee sentiment and adapt a customer experience playbook for employees.

Measuring End-to-End User Experience

“Experience-level agreements (XLAs) help drive better IT experiences by leveraging elements of digital experience monitoring (DEM), sentiment analysis and traditional service-level metrics that monitor the timeliness and effectiveness of supporting processes,” Gartner researchers Daniel Barros and David Groombridge wrote in the Gartner Hype Cycle for the Digital Workplace 2020, released July 17, which included XLAs for the first time.

Gartner had XLAs on the “Innovation Trigger” slope, meaning it’s a “breakthrough, public demonstration, product launch or other event (that) generates significant press and industry interest.”

The goal of XLAs in the early stages of adoption and maturity, the researchers wrote, is to “measure the end-to-end user experience within a given business process, and then be able to optimize it so that employees are continuously improving their technology experience in a wide variety of workspaces, including home offices.”

Related Article: How Your IT Team Can Design Better Employee Experiences

Leading to Better Business Performance

XLAs are likely going to feature in outsourcing scenarios, where IT teams most commonly build SLAs, rather than in internal IT scenarios, Barros told Reworked in an interview. Any IT team would love to build solid employee experiences for their technology and infrastructure stakeholders but they’re not exactly building XLAs into the process internally.

“Because normally when it's internal, IT is less formal,” Barros said. “You’d rarely have even an SLA. So the relationship tends to be a lot more formal when you outsource. Everything is stated in the contract and everything is structured.”

Barros sees more organizations introducing XLAs into these contracts with managed workplace services providers because it provides a foundation for user experience metrics than connect end-user technology to business performance. And it holds managed workplace services providers accountable. They may hit their SLA agreement provisions for IT services but at the same time may not have contributed to a positive user experience. 

“And it’s not just about the user experience,” Barros said, “but it's consuming IT resources for a better business performance. That’s the optimal objective of an XLA.”

XLAs Move to Change IT Identity

Primarily, XLAs are used by companies who have started to move IT to be outcome-driven, according to Sami Kallio, CEO for Happy Signals, a Helsinki, Finland-based company that offers an experience management platform for IT.

Some companies have realized the way to positively change the reputation of IT is to focus on meaningful changes from a business perspective. To get a quick assessment of the state of IT service, he recommended asking service providers to describe their task.

“If they answer closing tickets, there is a long way to becoming an experience-focused organization," he said. "If the answer is helping people, that company most likely is already on their way to becoming an experience-driven organization. Or as a manager you should ask this from yourself: Are you satisfied in delivering service that reaches the factual SLA targets or is your aim to help?”

Kallio suggested sharing experience data with agents, managers, partners and even lines of business. “In that way,” he said, “people start to change their thinking and they start to understand the end-users. Only after there is trust in the experience data would we recommend to set the experience targets. Moving to experience is much more a cultural change than an agreement.”  

Learning Opportunities

Related Article: Can You Improve Digital Employee Experience on a Tight Budget?

SLAs vs. XLAs

With SLAs, the objective is to measure how effective IT is at fixing things. SLAs measure success by how efficiently and effectively they address an identified issue. Generally, the SLA lays out an agreed-upon timeframe but this can overlook important aspects of user experience. 

Barros cited the example of an IT service provider that fixed an employee's laptop quickly 15 consecutive times, thereby satisfying SLA help-desk metrics. But is needing a laptop fix more than a dozen times a great user experience?

“The theory for the service provider is they're going to see that as successful and see a satisfied client,” Barros said. “But in reality the user is probably having a lot of difficulty being productive and going on with their work to finish a project. So that's the difference. While the SLA focuses on devices and on break-fix situations and how timely you can fix what has broken, an XLA focuses on the overall user journey and experience.”

Instead of just looking at timeliness, XLAs can include things like network performance, application performance and device performance to complement the support element. “And ideally you should have user sentiment collected whenever the user interacts with IT, whether it's through a chatbot or through a phone call or something else,” Barros said.

Connecting to User Persona

According to Gartner digital workplace research, organizations using XLAs should be able to:

  • Link technical service delivery to business KPIs.
  • Tie service revenue to improvement in XLA performance. 
  • Ensure that XLAs measure end-to-end user experience by selecting providers with a strong track record in process mapping, analytics and digital experience monitoring. 
  • Identify the leading causes of employee dissatisfaction with IT services.

All the elements of an XLA need to be connected to a user persona that maps what's relevant for that persona to carry out their work. Employee persona-building doesn’t just happen overnight, of course. It’s a process that includes employee sentiment gathering and ultimately mapping an employee journey, inheriting the model used in customer experience. The goal is to discover opportunities to improve internal processes, services and products, according to Barros.

“And then you generate the user experience index,” Barros said. “And the user experience index is going to have a different index target with different factors that you measure for each distinct persona. And then your outcome is to have a good user experience index. So if the laptop is failing and that laptop is critical for that persona to conduct their work, the index is likely going to be low."

Beyond the Hygiene Factor

XLAs can help move IT services beyond the “hygiene factor” when it comes to IT performance, Barros said. Service-level agreements ensure critical technology hygiene gets taken care of, but neglects important user experience objectives. In the current work environment, a strong virtual digital workplace strategy just makes sense — and user experience with IT services is critical.

“Our clients are wanting to focus on the end-user journey and the end-to-end experience, whether it's to attract and retain talent as an outcome of a digital workplace program or to boost productivity,” Barros said. “Or if it's just to improve overall business performance if your business is highly dependent on people, which most businesses are. That's been the catalyst for these new XLA agreements.”